Amazon culture under scrutiny

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

August 21, 2015

’’Purposeful Darwinism” is the phrase one former Amazon Human Resources director used to describe work conditions at the company. But is this a pejorative term where workers are merely fungible commodities and a workplace that is discouraging? Or is this a calculated corporate response to the competitive nature of business today that fosters loyalty and a fierce desire to make a corporate contribution? A cogent article in the New York Times explores these issues in detail in a not so complimentary look at Amazon’s workplace culture. It might be instructive for you to read the following and compare it to your own situation in the office.

Is Amazon at fault for engendering a philosophy which rewards contentious debate at the expense of compromise? To be sure you are applauded for speaking up- silence is not golden here. But what about a policy that might encourage employees to report to supervisors secretly about other employees? Here’s one such example:

In 2013, Elizabeth Willet, a former Army captain who served in Iraq, joined Amazon to manage housewares vendors and was thrilled to find that a large company could feel so energetic and entrepreneurial. After she had a child, she arranged with her boss to be in the office from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day, picks up her baby and often return to her laptop later. Her boss assured her things were going well, but her colleagues, who did not see how early she arrived, sent him negative feedback accusing her of leaving too soon. “I can’t stand here and defend you if your peers are saying you’re not doing your work,” she says he told her. She left the company after a little more than a year.

Sometimes working 85 hours a week without a vacation for some is not unusual. Another employee, Molly Jay, chimed in, “When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” she said. This is a frequent complaint by veteran employees now faced with some personal or family related hardships as they struggle to balance the brutal demands of what seems like a heartless company. Another example cited in the article:

A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. She says her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.

Some attacks are not so blunt or direct. Through the company portal, The Anytime Feedback tool, she was harpooned silently, and not so subtlely and succinctly. Those at the bottom of the performance rankings, very much affected by peer review, are culled each year. There have been reports of instances where employees collaborated against a colleague to hasten his or her departure from the ranks. Many like MS Willet feel sabotaged even as the company seems to embrace these activities and defends the feedback tool as being another example of a culture that thrives on openness rather than repression. Regardless the policies result in rivalries.

The rivalries at Amazon extend beyond behind-the-back comments. Employees say that the Bezos ideal, a meritocracy in which people and ideas compete and the best win, where co-workers challenge one another “even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” as the leadership principles note, has devolved into a world of frequent combat. This tenacity carries over into the meetings which are often raucous and replete with harsh language and criticism according to sources. This ferocity apparently is necessary if higher openings, of which there are always many due to the system of purging, are to be filled. Unfortunately this often has deleterious consequences as employees, cowed by their colleagues, are reluctant to speak up sometimes.

Further exacerbating the tension of backstabbing is the constant anecdotal recordkeeping supervisors must do to build their case for retaining a subordinate. The process has been likened to preparing for a court case where reams of documents are presented in support of a person keeping their position.

But unfairness does not always equate to illegality as many employees seeking redress have found out when looking for legal remedies. But if the past is indeed prologue, then Amazon will get its comeuppance in the free marketplace and ultimately a decision will be rendered by a just as unsympathetic and unforgiving investors in the stock market.

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